WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden on Wednesday delivered on her promise to prioritize the struggles of military families by reviving a decade-old initiative that challenged Americans to do something as simple as mow the lawn or drop off a meal for a family with a loved one in the armed forces.
Biden said military families are as important to the United States as a rudder is to a ship and that national security will be served by attending to their physical, social and emotional health.
“How can we hope to keep our military strong if we don’t give our families, survivors and caregivers what they need to thrive?" she asked at the White House.
Biden said the reiteration of Joining Forces will focus on employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for military families, education for the more than 2 million children of enlisted parents and veterans, and the overall health and well-being of these families.
Just 1% of the country serves in the all-volunteer military, she said. She also cited a Defense Department estimate of a 22% unemployment rate for military spouses.
Some military spouses face employment headaches after moves to a new base in a new state, especially in professions that require licensing, which ends up costing time and money. They and their children can have trouble adjusting to a new home or school, or making new friends.
“Service members cannot be focused on their mission if their families don’t have what they need to thrive at home,” said the first lady, who is the daughter and mother of service members. “And we can't expect to keep the best and brightest if our service members are forced to choose between their love of country and the hopes and dreams they have for their families.”
“We have to help you carry this weight," she said.
She cited commitments from the departments of Defense, Education and Labor, saying the work was just beginning. “Our effort will take all of our government working together, and we expect every agency to step up and be part of it," she said.
The first lady was joined virtually Wednesday by military families, advocates and others from around the world, a total of more than 100 people appearing in individual boxes on screens behind her on the stage at the White House.
She later visited the Military OneSource call center, a Department of Defense-funded operation that provides a range of counseling and other support for services for members and their families 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Biden toured the facility in Arlington, Virginia, one of three locations around the country, and listened to a military spouse and a member of the Army offer testimonials about the guidance they received after they sought assistance from Military OneSource.
"Thanks for helping our military members and their families," she said after meeting some of the workers who answer the calls. “I don't know if people thank you enough.”
She spent her first weeks as first lady conducting listening sessions with the spouses of senior Defense Department officials and military leaders, military family advocates and military children. Last month, she toured U.S. bases in Washington state and California, where she met with families and students.
She had promised during the 2020 presidential campaign to revive Joining Forces. Shortly before President Joe Biden took office, the first lady named Rory Brosius as the initiative's executive director. Brosius previously served as the program's deputy director.
Jill Biden's father, Donald Jacobs, was a Navy signalman in World War II who went to college on the GI Bill. Her late son, Beau, a father of two children, served in the Delaware Army National Guard, including a year in Iraq. Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.
Jill Biden's other causes are education and cancer research. She is a longtime English professor at community colleges.
Joining Forces was rolled out in 2011 under President Barack Obama's administration and was led by then-first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, when Joe Biden was vice president. The mission was to encourage the public and private sectors to support service members, veterans, their families and their caregivers with a focus on education, employment and wellness.
After leaving the White House in 2017, Jill Biden continued to work with military families through the Biden Foundation.